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Tech mogul pays bright minds to skip college

Youths’ ambitions funded for 2 years

John Burnham, one of two dozen recipients of the “20 Under 20’’ fellowship, will explore the idea of mining on asteroids. John Burnham, one of two dozen recipients of the “20 Under 20’’ fellowship, will explore the idea of mining on asteroids. (John Raoux/Associated Press)
By Marcus Wohlsen
Associated Press / May 30, 2011

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SAN FRANCISCO — Instead of paying attention in high school, Nick Cammarata preferred to read books on whatever interested him. He also has a gift for coding that got him into Carnegie Mellon University’s esteemed computer science program, despite his grades.

But the 18-year-old programmer won’t be going to college this fall. Or maybe ever.

Cammarata is one of two dozen winners of a scholarship just awarded by San Francisco tech tycoon Peter Thiel that comes with a unique catch: The recipients are being paid not to go to college.

Instead, these teenagers and 20-year-olds are getting $100,000 each to chase their entrepreneurial dreams for the next two years.

“It seems like the perfect point in our lives to pursue this kind of project,’’ says Cammarata, of Newburyport, Mass. Along with 17-year-old David Merfield, he will be working on software to upend the standard approach to teaching in high school classrooms.

Merfield, the valedictorian of his Princeton, N.J., high school class, is turning down a chance to go to Princeton University to take the fellowship.

Thiel handpicked the winners, based on the potential of their proposed projects to change the world. All the proposals have a high technology angle but otherwise span many disciplines.

One winner wants to create a mobile banking system for the developing world. Another is working to create cheaper biofuels. One wants to build robots that could help out around the house.

The prizes come at a time when debate in the United States over the value of higher education has become heated. New graduates mired in student loan debt are encountering one of the toughest job markets in decades. Rising tuitions and diminishing prospects have led many to ask whether college is worth the time and money.

“Turning people into debt slaves when they’re college students is really not how we end up building a better society,’’ Thiel says.

Thiel made his fortune as a cofounder of the online payment service PayPal shortly after graduating from Stanford Law School. He then became the first major investor in Facebook.

In conversation and as a philanthropist, Thiel pushes his strong belief that innovation has stagnated in the United States and that radical solutions are needed to push civilization forward.

The “20 Under 20’’ fellowship is one such effort. Thiel believes the best young minds can contribute more to society by skipping college and bringing their ideas straight to the real world.

The idea is not without its critics, however.

Vivek Wadhwa, the director of research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, has assailed Thiel’s program for sending what he sees as the message that anyone can be the next Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.

“Silicon Valley lives in its own bubble,’’ Wadhwa says. “It sees the world through its own prism. It’s got a distorted view.’’